not long after his new baby ar-rived home from the hospital, Chung Jin Park peered down to examine her scrunchy pink face. Though it was still too early to determine the shape of his daughter's eyelids, Park turned to his family and jokingly announced, "Well, there goes the money for her surgery."
Traditionally a procedure sought only by patients with excess eyelid skin or those hoping to lessen the signs of aging, eyelid surgery or blepharoplasty has become popular among young Asian North American women and accepted as just another cosmetic option in an array of many -- like tinting your eyelashes or straightening your teeth.
Approximately half of Asians are born with eyelids that are naturally smooth and uninterrupted by a crease in the skin. Asian patients seek out blepharoplasties to create or exaggerate a crease in their eyelids, an effect commonly referred to as "double eyelids."
"Eyes that are done look better," insists Silvia Kim, who operates a Korean cosmetics counter in Flushing, Queens. "The crease brings out the eyelashes and makes the eyes look bigger," she says.
This acceptance of surgery is seen by feminists as the product of an ethnocentric, racist culture. The fact that professionals use the terms "occidentalize" or "Caucasianize" to describe the process, without thinking twice, is itself telling.
Blepharoplasty is a simple procedure and is usually performed on an outpatient basis. It begins with cutting the upper eyelid into two parts and removing a sliver of skin millimetres wide as well as some of the fat underneath. Then the surgeon reattaches the lower eyelid flap slightly beneath the upper to create a crease. The operation takes less than an hour, requires a week of recovery and an antibiotic regimen, and has permanent effects.
While there are no figures available in Canada, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates that 142,000 blepharoplasties were performed there in 1999, twice the number performed seven years earlier.
Those who oppose the surgery fault the pervasive influence of Hollywood culture on women's self-esteem worldwide. Says Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin, whose NFB documentary Western Eyes tracks two Asian women considering whether to put their eyes under the knife, "What the women talked about was growing up and seeing images of Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Tiegs. Fashion magazines would say, "Asians have coarse hair, so they have to do this,' or "Asians have sallow complexions, so they have to use this makeup.''
Shin says more and more Asian-Canadian women are doing the deed, mostly between the ages of 18 and 28. "It's like having a dental appointment. It takes about 40 minutes.'
Some point out that Asian movie starlets and models usually have double eyelids. And those who don't simulate them with special glue or tape, which needs to be applied on a daily basis. While the crescent-shaped eyelid tape costs around $2 for 10 uses, professional eyelid surgery can set a person back anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, not including additional expenses for facilities and the anaesthesiologist.
Dr. Paul Weiss, who has practised general plastic surgery in Manhattan for 25 years, believes the increasing popularity of plastic surgery among Asians -- and non-Asians -- can be attributed to greater acceptance of cosmetic surgery. "There's a great deal of media attention given to procedures people years ago didn't think were available, and the exposure has been an impetus," he says. Weiss does emphasize that there is a distinct procedure for surgeons working with Asian eyes, in which experience is a must. In unskilled hands, eyelid folds may appear asymmetrical or be placed too high.
"You never hear about Caucasian women having their eyes done to look Asian," says Dina Gan, editor-in-chief of A magazine, the most widely circulated Asian-American publication in the U.S. She says it's terrible that global culture has made the western standard of beauty so predominant. Others point to the scarcity of Asian North Americans in the media. The number of Asian actors on prime-time television, for example, can easily be counted on one hand: Lucy Liu on Ally McBeal, Ming-Na on ER, Garrett Wang on Star Trek, Tia Carrere on Relic Hunter, and a few others.
This quest for an ethnic make-over is doomed, says T.O.'s Jean Yoon, a local playwright and producer of last year's Yoko Ono Project. "If you believe you're getting closer to an ideal based on a Caucasian standard of beauty, you'll never be perfect, because you're starting off Asian. But self-esteem starts from the inside out. It's not until you grow into yourself that you know who your are. You can't shape that with a knife. Experience is a far finer sculptor than that.'
From Wiretap with research by Geoffrey Chan